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Radical Cells

Free spreadsheets? Google, OpenOffice, and others offer intriguing alternatives to Microsoft Excel.

Contrary to what your kids may believe, the personal computer was not created solely to provide access to YouTube, Facebook, and iTunes. In the early days, in fact, no one was quite sure what burning need the PC might satisfy, and even IBM found it difficult to get customers excited about the company’s beige boxes.

Enter the electronic spreadsheet, first in the form of the pioneering VisiCalc program and then, shortly after, in the more friendly (and IBM-tailored) form of Lotus 1-2-3. Suddenly, companies had a compelling reason to buy PCs by the truckload, and they did. The spreadsheet became the original “killer app.” Married with the silicon chips in a PC, the spreadsheet put the crunch into numbers-crunching like never before and transformed a novelty device into an essential business tool.

Since then, corporate computing has undergone any number of transformations, from ERP to E-mail to eBay addiction, but the venerable spreadsheet has changed little. While Lotus 1-2-3 eventually succumbed to the more graphical and more powerful Microsoft Excel, basic spreadsheet functionality has remained largely the same for the past two decades. True, Microsoft has made a continuous series of refinements amid virtually no competition whatsoever, but today’s version of Excel would be instantly familiar to someone who hadn’t used it for a decade. You could argue, in fact, that that is a large part of the perpetual appeal of the spreadsheet: once you learn how to ride it you never forget.

But you do have to keep on paying. And even as you pony up yet another upgrade or licensing fee, you may begin to chafe at the lack of substantive improvement, not to mention the constantly running meter.

That may be about to change. Over the past few years, several programs have been released that take aim squarely — or at least obliquely — at Excel. Most are part of online, integrated suites that tout two prime advantages: low or no cost, and true Web-based architectures that allow for sharing spreadsheet files on a global basis.

ThinkFree Office, for example, is an online suite of common workplace applications that includes a potent spreadsheet dubbed Calc. The spreadsheet boasts 300 Excel-compatible functions including chart/graph capabilities, protected sheets, password compatibility, and more. Sheet, part of the Zoho office productivity suite from AdventNet, marks its two-year birthday this month in tech and has expanded its features on a near-weekly basis since its inception. OpenOffice is a multilingual, multiplatform product that is part of the open-source movement. Its spreadsheet component is also called Calc (or, more accurately, CALC) and works with several operating systems including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. WikiCalc is a free program devised by VisiCalc co-inventor Dan Bricklin that combines the authoring ease of a wiki with the familiar look and feel of a spreadsheet to tackle a range of data-management chores often handled by spreadsheets; it’s designed primarily as a way to post information to Web pages and, like the other products mentioned above, to facilitate collaboration via the Internet.

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